Arizona Mine Inspector's Office Tries To Climb Out Of Deep Financial Hole
Mining has been a staple of Arizona’s economy for the past century. But recent state and federal budget cuts have put the Arizona Mine Inspector’s Office in a deep hole symbolic of the mine shafts it monitors. The financial challenges come at the same time many mining operations are expanding.
There are more than 700 active mines in Arizona and at least another 10,000 abandoned mine sites. All of them require oversight from Joe Hart, Arizona's mine inspector.
Hart is the only elected mine inspector in the country. He’s in his second term and he’s sitting in his office at the state capitol where he’s surrounded by maps and charts showing locations of mines around Arizona.
"That includes copper, and gold, silver, decorative rock, sand and gravel,” Hart said.
Hart’s office also is responsible for inspecting some uranium and coal mines. He keeps tabs on all of the explosives and chemicals used in mining operations. There’s a lot of work to do, but this year the mine inspector only received $1.5 million dollars in the state budget. That’s a 42 percent drop from years before the economic downturn. Federal funds were also cut by $86,000 during the recession.
“We are just hamstrung,” Hart said.
Hart has 18 employees and only four of them actually leave the office to inspect mines. Despite the tight budget and limited staff, Hart said he’s pushing ahead with plans to backfill abandoned mine shafts. Under state law he’s only required to make sure the abandoned shafts are fenced and have warning signs, but he wants to do more to ensure they aren’t a safety risk.
“We are just trying to protect somebody from falling into these death traps,” he said.
There have been 16 fatalities at operating mines and two deaths in abandoned mines in Arizona over the past decade. But Hart said the state’s abandoned mine fund to pay to fill in old shafts has practically run dry. He said he’s also juggling limited funds to make sure operating mines are visited by an inspector at least once a year.
Oversize trucks drive in and out of a cement plant on the south side of Phoenix. A lot of rock and sand is excavated from a riverbed here, so this is a site in the inner city that requires state monitoring.
Tim Evans has been inspecting mines in Arizona for 14 years. He’s standing at the entrance of the sand pit and says money has gotten so tight that some inspections aren’t as thorough as he’d like.
“Sometimes you feel like I just don’t have the time and the manpower to do what I feel would be an adequate inspection,” Evans said.
He said he spends a lot of time on the road and living in hotels. And he said the job can be dangerous because he regularly runs into rattlesnakes and wild animal. He’s found illegal immigrants hiding in mine shafts and he’s not always welcomed by miners working in remote locations.
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and worry about the inspection I’m going to do or the inspection I did. Or I re-evaluate something that I did. You can actually lose sleep over this job,” Evans said.
Evans isn’t the only one losing sleep over budgets. Janet Torma-Krajewski is a mine safety expert and professor at the Colorado School of Mines.
“It’s certainly not the right direction to go. If we are all interested in getting down to zero fatalities and zero injuries it’s important to have a second set of eyes on sight to make sure the industry is adequately providing a safe and healthful work environment for the miners” said Torma-Krajewski.
All mines in Colorado are inspected by federal officials but the Arizona constitution says that’s the responsibility of the state. Mine inspector Joe Hart said he’ll ask lawmakers for a budget increase in January, but he’s not too optimistic that it will be approved.